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- A Short History of the Great War - 10/63 -


which the war proved to be more than ever effective on sea, was shown to be more than ever powerless on shore. The mine and the submarine made the sustained bombardment of land fortifications a dangerous practice, and moving batteries on shore were more than a match for ships, because they could not be sunk and could be more easily repaired or replaced. There were wild dreams of British forces landing on German coasts, and still wilder alarms about German armies descending on British shores; but the only landing effected on hostile territory during the war was at Gallipoli, and it did not encourage a similar attempt against the better defended lands held by the Germans. We had to content ourselves with the practical realization in war of our continual claim in peace that sea-power is an instrument for the defence of island states rather than one for offence against continental peoples. Only when and where those peoples wished to be defended and opened their ports to their allies, was it found possible to land a relieving force. The British armies which liberated Brussels had to travel via Boulogne and not Ostend; and the German ships which sheltered in port had to be routed out by the pressure of Allied arms on land.

The naval actions of the war were therefore of the nature of outpost raids and skirmishes rather than of battles. The first that developed any serious fighting took place in the Bight of Heligoland on 28 August. Apparently with the design of inducing the Germans to come out, a flotilla of submarines under Commodore Keyes was sent close in to Heligoland, with some destroyers and two light cruisers, the Arethusa and Fearless, behind them, and more substantial vessels out of sight in the offing. Presently there appeared a German force of destroyers and two cruisers, the Ariadne and the Strassburg; they were driven off mainly by the gallant fighting of the Arethusa; but thinking there was no further support the Germans then sent out three heavier cruisers, the Mainz, the Koln, and apparently the Yorck. The Arethusa and Fearless held their own for two or three hours until Beatty's battle-cruisers, led by the Lion, came safely through the German mine-fields and submarines to their assistance. The Lion's 13.5-inch guns soon settled the issue: the Mainz and the Köln were sunk, while no British unit was lost, and the casualties were 32 killed and 52 wounded against 300 German prisoners and double that number of other casualties. The overwhelming effect of heavier gunfire had been clearly demonstrated, and it was further illustrated on 17 October by the destruction of four German destroyers off the Dutch coast by the light cruiser Undaunted accompanied by four British destroyers; but the next exhibition of naval gun-power was to be at our expense.

Among the incidental advantages which the adhesion of Great Britain brought to the Entente was the intervention of Japan, which, apart from its alliance with us, had never forgiven Germany the part she took in depriving Japan of the fruits of her victory over China in 1894, and regarded as a standing offence the naval base which Germany had established at Tsingtau and the hold she had acquired on North Pacific islands. On 15 August Japan demanded within eight days the surrender of the lease of Tsingtau and the evacuation of Far Eastern waters by German warships. No answer was, of course, returned, but the German squadron under Von Spee wisely left Tsingtau in anticipation of its investment by the Japanese. It began on the 27th, and troops were landed on 2 September: on the 23rd a British contingent arrived from Wei-hai-wei to co-operate, and gradually the lines of investment and the heavy artillery were drawn closer. The final assault was fixed for 7 November, but the Germans forestalled it by surrender; there were 3000 prisoners out of an original garrison of 5000, and Germany's last overseas base, on which she had spent £20,000,000, passed into the enemy's hands. Australian troops had already occupied without serious opposition German New Guinea, the Bismarck archipelago, and the Gilbert and Caroline Islands, while Samoa surrendered to a New Zealand force, and the Marshall Islands to the Japanese.

Von Spee's squadron was thus left without a German naval base; but one of its vessels was to show that there was still a career for a raider, and the others were to demonstrate the paradox that neutral ports might be more useful than bases of their own, inasmuch as they could not be treated like Tsingtau. On fleeing from the Japanese menace Von Spee had steamed eastwards across the Pacific, but two of his cruisers, the Königsberg and the Emden, were detached to help the Germans in East Africa and to raid British commerce in the Indian Ocean. On 20 September the Königsberg sank H.M.S. Pegasus at Zanzibar, but failed to give much assistance in the projected attack on Mombasa, and was presently bottled up in the Rufigi River. The Emden under Captain Müller had better success. Throughout September and October she haunted the coasts of India and harried British trade, setting fire to an oil-tank at Madras, torpedoing a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer in the roadstead of Penang, and capturing in all some seventeen British merchantmen. She had, however, lost her own attendant colliers about 25 October, and a raid on the Cocos or Keeling islands on 9 November was interrupted by the arrival of H.M.S. Sydney, which had been warned by wireless, on her way from Australia. In less than two hours the Sydney's 6-in. guns had battered the Emden to pieces, and with only 18 casualties had killed or wounded 230 of the enemy. Müller became an honourable prisoner of war; he had proved himself the most skilful of German captains and the best of German gentlemen.

Meanwhile Von Spee had gained the South American coast and made himself at home in its friendly ports and islands. He had with him two sister cruisers, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, each of 11,400 tons and an armament of eight 8.2-inch guns, and three smaller cruisers, the Dresden, Leipzig, and Nürnberg, each about the size of the Emden, from 3200 to 3540 tons, and carrying ten 4.1-inch guns; none of them had a speed of less than 22 knots. To protect the South Pacific trade the British Government had in August sent Admiral Cradock with a somewhat miscellaneous squadron, consisting of the Canopus, a pre-Dreadnought battleship of nearly 13,000 tons, with 6-inch armour, four l2-inch guns, and a speed of 19 knots; the Good Hope, a cruiser of 14,000 tons, with two 9.2-inch and sixteen 6-inch guns, and a speed of 22 knots; the Monmouth of 9800 tons, fourteen 6-inch guns, and the same speed as the Good Hope; the Glasgow of 4800 tons, with two 6-inch and ten 4-inch guns, and a speed of 25 knots; and the Otranto, an armed liner. Reinforcements were expected from home, and possibly from Japan; but the squadrons were not unequally matched in weight of metal, though the British were handicapped by the diversity and antiquity of their armament. The balance was, however, destroyed before the battle, because, as Cradock in the third week of October made his way north along the Pacific coast, the Canopus developed defects which necessitated her being left behind for repairs.

The squadrons fell in with one another north-west of Coronel late in the afternoon of 1 November. Cradock had turned south, presumably to join the Canopus, but Von Spee secured the inestimable advantage of the in-shore course, and as the sun set it silhouetted the British ships against the sky while the gathering gloom obscured the Germans. The fight was really between the two leading cruisers on each side, the Good Hope and the Monmouth against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. The Germans got the range first, and the Good Hope's two 9.2-inch guns were soon put out of action in spite of their superior weight. At 7:50 she blew up, and the Monmouth was a wreck. The lightly-armoured Glasgow had no option but to use her superior speed and escape to warn the Canopus. This she did, and the two got safely round Cape Horn to the Falkland Isles, leaving for the time the Germans in command of the South Pacific coast. Sixteen hundred and fifty officers, midshipmen, and men lost their lives with Cradock, and none were rescued by the Germans. There was hardly a parallel in British naval history for such a defeat.

Prompt measures were taken to retrieve it. Lord Fisher had succeeded Prince Louis of Battenberg at the Admiralty on 30 October, and one of his first acts was to dispatch on 5 November a squadron under Admiral Sturdee, comprising the Invincible and Inflexible, and four lighter cruisers, the Carnarvon, Kent, Cornwall, and Bristol; the Glasgow was picked up in the South Atlantic, while the Canopus was at Port Stanley in the Falklands. The Invincible and Inflexible were the two first battle-cruisers built; each had a tonnage of 17,250, a speed of 27-28 knots, and eight 12-inch guns which could be fired as a broadside to right or left; and there would be little chance for Von Spee if he encountered such a weight of metal. Sturdee reached Port Stanley on 7 December. Von Spee, who had been refitting at Juan Fernandez, left it on 15 November, possibly fearing the Japanese approach, and made for Cape Horn and the Atlantic. His plan was to snap up the Canopus and the Glasgow, get what he could out of the Falklands, and then proceed to support the rebellion in South Africa. Early on 8 December he unsuspectingly approached Port Stanley, not discovering the presence of Sturdee's squadron until it was too late. He then made off north-eastwards with the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, while his lighter cruisers turned south-eastwards. The former were sunk in the afternoon by the two British battle- cruisers and the Carnarvon, while the latter succumbed in the evening to the Kent, Glasgow, and Cornwall; only the Dresden escaped, to be sunk in five minutes on 14 March 1915 at Juan Fernandez by the Kent and the Glasgow. The Invincible had no casualties, the Inflexible one man killed; the Kent had four killed and twelve wounded, and the Glasgow nine and four. About two hundred Germans were saved from drowning, but they did not include Von Spee.

Such were the effects upon human life of a disparity of weight of metal in naval action. No skill could avoid the brutal precision of mechanical and material superiority. Von Spee had it at Coronel, Sturdee at the Falklands, and there is no reason to suppose that if the persons had been exchanged, the result would have been any different. It is the romance of the past which attributes naval success mainly to superior seamanship or courage; the "little" Revenge was the super-Dreadnought of her time, and the victories of the Elizabethan sea-dogs were as surely won by superior weight of metal as those of Nelson or to-day. Von Spee and his men fought as bravely and as skilfully as Cradock and his; and the war for command of the sea went against the Germans because while the Germans were building pre-Dreadnoughts and casting 8-inch guns, we were building Dreadnoughts and casting 10 or l2-inch guns; and while they were constructing their Dreadnoughts, we were building super-Dreadnoughts with 13.5 and l5-inch guns. Success in naval warfare goes not so much to the brave as to those who think ahead in terms of mechanical force.

The last German cruisers outside harbour were now destroyed, and barely a raider remained at large, while the British went on gathering the fruits of their command of the sea by mustering in Europe the forces of the Empire and acquiring abroad the disjointed German colonies. Naval strategy was reduced to the dull but arduous task of blocking the exits from the North Sea and guarding against the furtive German raids. The battle-fleet was stationed in Scapa Flow, the cruisers off Rosyth, while little more than a patrol --backed by a squadron of pre-Dreadnoughts in the Channel --was left to watch the Straits of Dover and supplement the mine-fields. Both combatants drew advantage from the narrow front of Germany's outlook towards the sea; the exits were easier for us to close than Nelson had found the lengthy coast of France, and no German Fleet slipped across the Atlantic as Villeneuve did in 1805. On the other hand, the narrow front was easier to fortify, protect with mine-fields, and defend against attack. If there was to be a conclusive naval battle, the field would be in the North Sea, and the only hope of success for the Germans lay in the dispersion of our battle-fleet.


A Short History of the Great War - 10/63

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